State Profiles: Illinois Wine Country

Illinois has a winegrowing history dating back to 1691, and in 1900 was the fourth largest wine producer in the country until Prohibition wiped out the industry, as it did elsewhere. The modern industry was stimulated by a 1976 law allowing onsite sales at wineries, with both Lynfred and Galena wineries opening in 1979.

Lisa Ellis, Executive Director of the Illinois Grape Growers & Vintners Alliance, does a great job protecting and promoting the industry, which now has eight wine trails and two AVAs: Shawnee Hills, and the Upper Mississippi River Valley which spans several states. The wine industry has grown strongly in recent years, and the state’s official wine is Rosé, supported by the tagline, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses in Illinois”.

Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago is a WineAmerica Supplier Member, and a valuable resource for the wine industry (as well as beer, spirits, cider, mead, sake, etc.). Run by President Jerald O’Kennard, BTI provides many different services to companies and associations, and during the Covid crisis provided a crucial alternative to traditional in-person competitions. So state associations from New Jersey, New York, and elsewhere used BTI’s reliable system for their events, and then never looked back.

August Hill Winery was founded in 2002 by Mark and Teri Wenzel on a farm created by Mark’s grandfather, located on a hill surrounded by woods and with a view of the Illinois River. They produce a wide range of wines from cold-hardy Minnesota varieties, but also French-American and Native grapes. Mark’s love of sparkling wines led to the opening of the sister brand, Illinois Sparkling Co, with the goal of “Perfecting the Bubble” using the traditional method but with different grapes than those used in Champagne.

Blue Sky Vineyard, a dream of Jim Ewers and his father-in-law Barrett Rochman, had its first grapes planted in 2000 in the Shawnee Hills of southern Illinois, and produces a wide range of estate-grown wines from many varieties. The winery also offers small bites to accompany the wines. The Tuscany-inspired winery is joined by the Winery Suites B&B, with a Blue Sky Suite and a Tuscan Romance Suite.

Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery is a three-generation operation that also evolved through three states—Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois—to get where it is today in Galena, a small town regularly cited by travel media as one of America’s best to visit. The first winemaker, Christine Lawlor-White, created an “Eric the Red” wine named after her son, who followed in her footsteps. In fact, after Christine was named Illinois “Winemaker of the Year” three times, in 2019 she was able to bestow that honor on Eric—a great family tradition.

Mackinaw Valley Vineyards, created around the turn of this century, sits on 86 acres of farmland including 15 acres of grapes, and offers a 30-mile view of the surrounding countryside. The property also features several outdoor deck areas and hiking paths, and the eclectic wine selection includes lots of Blush options plus several Flavored wines.

Great Grapes: Chambourcin

The dark blue-black berries of Chambourcin grapes, a French-American variety, produce a deeply colored, claret-style wine with spicy aromas and fruity flavors, and is also ideal for Rosé.